21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Literary Annotation, from Poe to Twitter

John Roache


On the sixth of September 2012 Bret Easton Ellis tweeted: “Reading D. T. Max’s bio I continue to find David Foster Wallace the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation…”. This article will be less interested in the judiciousness of Ellis’s findings—that debate seems unlikely to resolve itself any time soon—than in the form they take. “Reading D. T. Max’s bio:” the present tense suggests a pause for reflection, a moment in which, to cite Edgar Allan Poe, “the mind of the reader wishes to unburthen itself of a thought” (Poe 2, emphasis original). However, whereas Poe here is discussing his long-held habit of “pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion” in the margins of his books (“I have been always solicitous of an ample margin,” Poe 1), Ellis’s thought is unburdened via a dramatically more public forum, and prompts, predictably, the unburdening of thousands more across the web. Indeed, while authorly marginalia in books have traditionally been associated with notions of “genius,” uniqueness, and essential truth,[1] and today hold as privileged a place as ever in the catalogues of the major Anglo-American archival collections,[2] this article will suggest that the emergence of new textual technologies and social media platforms such as Twitter—which has itself been described as  “basically electronic marginalia on everything in the world” (Anderson n. pag.)—calls for a re-evaluation of the very definition and meaning of the “marginal” authorly utterance. By considering the contrasting fates of Ellis’s tweets and Wallace’s own book marginalia (now archived at the Harry Ransom Centre), as well as the disjuncture between J. K. Rowling’s Twitter feed and her £150,000 annotations in a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, I will contend that the contemporary movement towards digital engagements with authors and literary culture is accompanied by a paradoxical fetishization of the conventional literary archive—in other words, of those “concrete” authorly scribbles which seem, so alluringly, to offer a level of uniqueness and stability. Crucially, we will see that this dynamic between tweet and doodle—between an author’s digital and “concrete” textual utterances—is no mere “formal” development, but is rather entangled in a range of attendant cultural and economic questions.  



How are contemporary writers' marginalia and annotations revealing our fetishization of the conventional literary archive in the age of Twitter and new textual technologies?

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]


I will return to the case of Ellis and Wallace below but, first of all, we might wonder what the advent of Twitter would have signified for Poe, who ranked marginalia “somewhat above the chance and desultory comments of literary chit-chat” (“‘talk for talk’s sake’”) precisely on account of their status as private: “In the marginalia […] we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly – boldly – originally – with abandonnement – without conceit” (Poe 1-2, emphasis original). Meanwhile, for Paul Valéry, who translated, annotated, and published a selection of Poe’s marginalia in 1927, the act of annotation gives rise to a theory of the individual mind: just as “the attentive reading of a book is really a continuous commentary, a succession of notes that emanate from the inner voice,” so “[m]arginal notes represent part of the notations of pure thought:”

The multitude of disordered thoughts, the purposeful glance which confirms some, dissolves others, abolishes or goes deeper here and there into the present effect of a number of previous moments that have been recorded one by one—no subject is more stimulating for the mind. The essential object of the mind is mind. (Valéry 181-82, emphasis original)

For both Poe and Valéry, then, marginalia present us with something like the “fresh,” “original,” or “pure” movements of their author’s mind, a revelation of the private individual at its most spontaneous; and the self-reflexive logic of Valéry’s annotations about Poe’s annotations also adds weight to the marginalia of these two authors, which become marks simultaneously of Romantic poetic genius and brilliant philosophical insight. In this sense, although Lawrence Lipking’s seminal essay on literary annotation contends that “[t]he charm of such notes depends on their being on the edge: the borders of intelligibility (Poe) or consciousness (Valéry)” (Lipking 612), nonetheless the decidedly elevated status of such authorly marginalia is linked to their ability to maintain a certain, centralizing stability: they are said to disclose the “inner voice” of their famous producers.


poe-annotation-picMere desultory literary chit-chat? Edgar Allen Poe's prosaic view of marginalia as revealing private thought processes also affirms the importance of such insights into the unpublished annotative notes of famous writers

[Images by Open Library and Kevin Dooley under CC BY licenses]


It is from this notion of absolute spontaneity, or even truthfulness, that authorly annotations have conventionally derived their public appeal. In the case of S. T. Coleridge, who brought the Latinate term “marginalia” into English in 1819, what began as a habit of annotating books belonging to a close circle of friends—including Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincey, and the Wordsworths—would later grow into a modest annotative economy: the poet became “so well known as an annotator” that relative strangers began to send in their books “so as to secure [Coleridge’s] opinion in the form of marginalia,” while “Coleridge, obliging them, was well aware that the results would circulate” (Jackson, Book xvi; Jackson, Marginalia 157). “From roughly 1807, when [Coleridge] was thirty-five,” continues H. J. Jackson, “the number of books that he freely annotated grew steadily until he began to see his library as a marketable resource, and to capitalise upon it” (Jackson, Marginalia 7, 149-55). As we can see here, the value of marginalia in the early nineteenth century is linked not only to their apparent intimacy, their ability to disclose the “pure thoughts” of the genius author, but also to a certain fetishistic quality that we might nowadays associate with the celebrity autograph. Take, for example, Coleridge’s inscription in the margin of a book belonging to Lamb, which jestingly promises that “I will not be long here, Charles!—& gone, you will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic” (qtd. in Jackson, Marginalia 7); here, as D. C. Greetham puts it, the “‘core’ text [a copy of the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher] becomes socially merely a ‘pretext’ for the construction of a non-organic, dispersed form of rhetoric that motivates the entire cultural exchange” (Greetham 69). And this seemingly “parasitic” or transformative capacity of authorly marginalia continues to inform the value of annotated texts to this day. In 2013-14, the English and American branches of PEN raised well over a million dollars by auctioning off first editions of books that had been specially annotated by their still-living authors, including the likes of Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, J. K. Rowling, Colm Tóibín, and John Banville (as the PEN website puts it, “each contributor has transformed […] a classic work into a distinct new artefact for one lucky buyer.”) “Nice,” wrote Banville on the flyleaf of a copy of The Sea, “the opportunity to deface one of my own books;” The Sea sold for £7000, while Rowling’s heavily marked Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone topped the eventual sales list at £150,000.



A modest annotative economy: the marginalia and annotations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (marked above as "STC" alongside William Wordsworth or "WW") made his personal collection of books highly prized

[Image by POP under a CC BY license]


Indeed, the marginalia of Rowling—who also happens to have become a prolific tweeter in recent years—will provide us with an instructive set of interpretive problems. In a marginal commentary that loops around the opening page of Chapter Eleven in Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling outlines the apparent origins of the game of Quidditch:

—was invented in a small hotel in Manchester after a row with my then boyfriend. I had been pondering the things that hold a society together, cause it to congregate and signify its particular character and knew I needed a sport. It infuriates men, in my experience (why is the Snitch so valuable etc.), which is quite satisfying given my state of mind when I invented it.

In order to work through the interpretive implications of this note, which seems at once to delimit and to disrupt the borders of Rowling’s text, we can turn to a set of terms from genetic criticism. Although Rowling’s account appears to gesture towards the processes by which “external” texts or events (“exogenesis”) were initially “incorporated” into Philosopher’s Stone (“endogenesis”), it is perhaps most accurately categorised as an instance of “epigenesis:” the continued genesis of the text after its initial publication.[3] Rowling’s annotated first edition then becomes a kind of late-stage manuscript, seeming to grant, in this example, new angles for the critical analysis of Quidditch in relation to gender and social theory, or the individual experiences of the author herself; the “up-to-date,” contemplative perspective of the marginalia could even be seen to produce “the über-definitive version of what you might argue is the publishing sensation of the century.”[4] And yet, at the same time, the full contents and extent of Rowling’s marginal “Relics” are only now available to, and appreciable by, the “one lucky buyer” who put up the £150,000 at auction; the rest of us must make do with a handful of scans circulated in the media. The critic is thus placed in a difficult position: if authorly marginalia have historically been associated with notions of disclosure and truth, then the veil of exclusivity around Rowling’s annotated Philosopher’s Stone seems to imply, firstly, that lay readers do not have access to the “definitive”’ version of the text; and, correspondingly, that Rowling’s notes and sketches might provide a vital (but now effectively “secret”) interpretive “key” to certain passages, character details, and plot points.



How do J. K. Rowling's annotations of Chapter 11 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone influence our reading of the novel?

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]


The next question that emerges, however—particularly in light of recent controversies surrounding statements published through Rowling’s Twitter account—is why the author’s marginal handwritten notes should command any greater cultural or economic value than, for example, a string of tweets on the subject of the Potter series. In November 2015, Rowling prompted a flurry of online debate by tweeting that one of the chief antagonists of the series, Professor Severus Snape, in fact “died for Harry out of love for Lily [Potter, Harry’s mother]”—an “epigenetic” comment that again seems to make a claim on the dominion of the texts “themselves.” More recently, Rowling has intervened in the impassioned (and frequently racist) Twitter argument that followed the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in the recent stage production, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, noting simply: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione [followed by a kiss emoji].” Although the Snape tweets had sought to make a “canonical” statement about the Potter series via the “external” medium of Twitter, here Rowling bases her endorsement of Dumezweni’s casting on the apparently secure authority of that original canon—in response to which, nonetheless, many readers have pointed out the several instances in which Hermione is either referred to or depicted as “white” in earlier incarnations of the text (even including an early pencil sketch by Rowling, illustrations on front covers, and Emma Watson’s casting in the film series). Moreover, these replies to Rowling’s initial tweet are repeatedly posed as authoritative resolutions of the problem at hand, in many cases consisting simply of a photograph of those passages that contain a description of Hermione’s whiteness, as if to say: here it is on paper, in black and white, and not even J. K. Rowling can argue with that: here is an image of the book itself. On the other hand, however, those tweeters who are generally in favour of the casting of Dumezweni have been able to point to Rowling’s tweet as a kind of final authorial intention, quite literally an “authorization” of the play’s black version of Hermione:

@lovethediosa — im very confused on how white people are trying to tell @jk_rowling the race of a character she made up.
@dankertclanker — @lovethediosa @jk_rowling Well, after 8 films and a book cover, that she sanctioned, it’s heavily implied.

As we can see, then, both Rowling’s book marginalia and her Twitter statements introduce forms of textual instability, the resolution of which often seems to depend upon the kind of psychic, economic, or political investments that one might have in the very promise of stability in either direction (is the £150,000 text “definitive” or supplementary? Is Hermione black or white?). However, it is by considering the key formal differences here—between Rowling’s handwritten and electronic marginalia—that we can also bring to light the shifting and ambiguous status of annotation itself as a practice in contemporary poetics. With the emergence of social media and electronic text, where can the “margin” of a literary oeuvre now be said to begin and end? Why might an author’s handwritten marginalia continue to command an elevated economic or interpretive value at all, given the potentially more “democratic” version of authority that a forum such as Twitter seems to grant? Indeed, the somewhat exclusionary status of Rowling’s Philosopher’s Stone marginalia can even be said to perform an implicit denial of those same critical inferences that her controversial tweets serve to confirm: not only that the underlying notion of textual “stability” or truth is determined in relation to a number of ideological and historical factors that go well beyond the “merely” editorial or genetic concern for the “correct” or definitive literary edition; but also that this site of contestation is made ever more visible (and contestable) by the development of new textual technologies in tandem with the seemingly contradictory fetishization of the “concrete” literary archive, and the “uniquely” annotated book object.

In this sense, if Rowling’s “electronic marginalia” on the Potter series have infuriated some and delighted others, above all they seem to have drawn attention to the political dynamics of textual stability: ultimate authority can be located either in the original Potter “canon,” or in the most recent tweets of its author, depending on whether or not the reader can accept the casting of Dumezweni as Hermione. However, as the above examples have also shown, an authorly tweet continues to hold a less privileged cultural status than an “actual” marginal notation, cannot be called “parasitic” in quite the same way, and if you’re not happy with the revelation of “pure thought” or truth on offer then you can respond directly at the click of a button—the idea of the autonomous genius is fairly well ruined by an internet connection (one thinks here of Jonathan Franzen’s well-documented aversion to Twitter as the “ultimate irresponsible” and “unspeakably irritating” modern platform).



Electronic marginalia: How do J. K. Rowling's tweets (such as her support for the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in the recent stage production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) introduce new forms of textual instability?

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]


Furthermore, while we may never know the full extent (and contentiousness) of the marginalia in Rowling’s £150,000 first edition of Philosopher’s Stone, their remarkable price can at least be linked to a few of those impulses (towards stability, identity, truth) that make the idea of a black Hermione so unpalatable to some. My point here is not, of course, that an interest in marginalia necessarily entails a particular political position, but rather that the reassuring connotations of the “genius” author’s annotated books, her marginal revelations of the mind, continue to provide a potential counterweight to the perceived contemporary pressures of technological abstraction and personal and cultural fragmentation (for which Twitter has become something of an emblem). As the Harry Ransom Centre’s Richard W. Oram has noted, curatorial and academic interest in annotated writers’ libraries has actually increased since the 1960s and 70s, to the point that it is now fairly standard practice for an author’s books to be purchased and held alongside the rest of her archive (Oram 11-24). Indeed, when David Foster Wallace’s papers were bought in 2010, for an estimated $600,000, it was his extensively annotated personal library that garnered the majority of initial public interest. As Mark O’Connell wrote in the New Yorker:

There’s something deeply gratifying […] about seeing how one of the most important writers of his generation modified Cormac McCarthy’s author photo, in a copy of Suttree, with spectacles, moustache, and fangs. It’s not as though Wallace never clowned around in his actual writing, of course, but this particular kind of goofiness—spontaneous, distracted, childish—makes him seem especially vivid and present. (O’Connell n. pag.)

Even more than the extensive comedy of his published texts, suggests O’Connell, it is Wallace’s “spontaneous, distracted, childish” doodles that make it seem as if he is right here in front of us—that he is, in fact, a “gratifying[ly]” relatable kind of genius. On the other hand, Bret Easton Ellis rounded off his series of tweets in 2012 by describing Wallace as “the best example of a contemporary male writer lusting for a kind of awful greatness that he simply wasn’t able to achieve.” But while Ellis was left to debate his comments with hundreds of online interlocutors—from the firmly sympathetic to the wildly antagonistic—Wallace’s literary legacy has effectively been cemented by the lucrative, high-profile installation of his archive and personal library alongside the Ransom Centre’s holdings for the likes of Don DeLillo, J. M. Coetzee, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce; Wallace’s annotated books have already given rise to scholarship on manuscript genetics, late twentieth-century North American psychology, and secular spiritualism.[5] Readers hoping to catch a glimpse of Wallace’s copious marginalia will ordinarily have to travel to Austin in order to peruse his books (or photocopies thereof) in a closely monitored and protected environment, with any resulting research subject to the satisfactory resolution of relevant copyright and permissions issues. And if we remain none the wiser as to the appropriateness of such a status for Wallace’s aesthetic oeuvre, the contrast with Ellis’s series of tweets does at least gesture towards the complex and evolving status of the various forms of “marginal” materials in contemporary literary interpretation—where a tweet can be publicly disputed, but the handwritten doodle might still attain the prestige of a “Relic.”


CITATION: John Roache, "Literary Annotation, from Poe to Twitter," Alluvium, Vol. 5, No. 4 (2016): n. pag. Web. 30 October 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v5.4.02.


John Roache is Lecturer in Twentieth-Century Literature at the University of Manchester. His work focuses on the crossovers between archival research and critical theory, with a special focus on the contemporary  legacies of  modernist  and  postmodernist  aesthetics. He is  currently  working on  a monograph  concerning  the  question of  textual,  social,  and  political  marginality in  the  work ofauthors such as William Blake, Djuna Barnes, and David Foster Wallace. 



[1] These are some of the recurrent (and often contested) themes which emerge in the existing scholarly work on literary marginalia: see especially Lipking (1977), McFarland (1990), and Jackson (2001; 2003; 2005).

[2] For the best introduction to the growing contemporary status of the “writer’s library” in literary criticism, see Oram (2014).

[3] For expanded definitions and discussions of these terms, which Dirk Van Hulle adapts from the critical vocabulary originally put forward by Genette (1979: 21-67), see Van Hulle (2012; 2013; 2014).

[4] This is the description of the text given by Rick Gekoski, the rare book dealer who initially acquired the annotated text from Rowling.

[5] See for instance the essays collected in Bolger and Korb (2014). See also my own, expanded discussion of Wallace’s annotated library (2016; forthcoming).


Works Cited:

Anderson, Sam. “What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text.” New York Times Magazine, 4 March 2011 (accessed 24 October 2016): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/magazine/06Riff-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

Bolger, Robert K., and Scott Korb (eds.). Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Genette, Raymonde Debray. Essais de critique génétique. Paris: Flammarion, 1979.

Greetham, D. C. “Review of Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, by H. J. Jackson.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Vol. 40, No.1 (2002): 61-73.

Jackson, H. J. Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.

—. A Book I Value: Selected Marginalia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

—. Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia. Ann Arbor: Yale University Press, 2005.

Lipking, Lawrence. “The Marginal Gloss.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 3, No.4 (1977): 609-55.

McFarland, Thomas. “Synecdochic Structure in Blake’s Marginalia.” European Romantic Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1990): 75-90.

O’Connell, Mark. “The Marginal Obsession with Marginalia.” New Yorker, 26 January 2012 (accessed 24 October 2016): http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-marginal-obsession-with-marginalia.

Oram, Richard W. “Writers’ Libraries: Historical Overview and Curatorial Considerations.” Collecting, Curating, and Researching Writers’ Libraries: A Handbook, edited by Richard W. Oram. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014, pp. 1-28.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Marginalia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981.

Roache, John. “‘The Realer, More Enduring and Sentimental Part of Him:’ David Foster Wallace’s Personal Library and Marginalia.” Orbit: Journal of Writing Around Pynchon (forthcoming, 2016).

Valéry, Paul. The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, edited by James R. Lawler, translated by Malcolm Cowley, Vol. VIII. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Van Hulle, Dirk. “Modern Manuscripts and Textual Epigenetics: Samuel Beckett’s Works between Completion and Incompletion.” Modernism/modernity, Vol. 18, No. 4 (2012): 801-12.

—. “Modernism, Mind, and Manuscripts.” A Handbook of Modernism Studies, edited by Jean-Michel Rabaté. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, pp. 225-38.

—. Modern Manuscripts: The Extended Mind and Creative Undoing from Darwin to Beckett and Beyond. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.



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